Oct. 17, 2014 by Darius
I just read A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941-1945, edited by Antony Beever and Luba Vinogradova. The book consists chiefly of the notebook writings of Soviet journalist Vasily Grossman and is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.
Grossman was a reporter for the Soviet military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. He was present at nearly every important battle on the Eastern Front, and altogether, he spent more than 1,000 days covering the war at the front. As hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were killed or captured by advancing Nazis in the Ukraine in 1941, Grossman was nearly captured himself. Later, he spent months at Stalingrad, where a soldier was considered an old-timer if he had survived for three days. Finally, he accompanied many of the same units from Stalingrad as they fought all the way to Berlin itself. There is a wonderful story about one unit bringing its camel, which carried munitions at Stalingrad and became something of a mascot and pet, all the way to Berlin, where they brought it inside the Reichstag to spit.
Obviously, Grossman’s writing captures a great deal of the hell on earth that was the Eastern Front in World War II. He was one of the first Soviets to see German death camps, and his article entitled “The Hell Called Treblinka” was read at the Nuremburg Trials as evidence and makes for some of the most powerful reading of the book. But A Writer at War is also full of breathtaking courage, patriotism, and sacrifice exhibited by individual Soviet citizens and soldiers. Grossman’s mastery as a journalist and writer comes in his ability to maintain a focus on the individual amid the clashes of millions. His articles in Krasnaya Zvezda became incredibly popular among Red Army soldiers, and they grew to have a great deal of respect for Grossman for telling their stories.
After the war, Grossman’s dedication to reporting events as they happened and not as the Stalinist machine wished them to have happened led to him falling into political disfavor. His master work, Life and Fate, a fictionalized version of the Battle of Stalingrad, was suppressed inside the Soviet Union and was only published after being smuggled out of the USSR.
Reading Grossman’s dispatches also gives readers some insight into the complexity of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine and a sense for the Russian attachment to Ukraine, a territory many Russians paid for in blood during WWII.
A Writer at War would appeal to anyone with an interest in World War II or Russian history.